WASHINGTON — Following President Obama's call Tuesday evening for a return to fiscal responsibility, Republicans responded -- by demanding the country return to a policy of fiscal responsibility.
If that sounds like the two parties are on the same page at last, the GOP's actual message -- expressed most directly by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in the party's official response to Obama's speech -- was that the party was prepared to oppose the president's economic program at almost every turn.
"To solve our current problems, Washington must lead," Jindal said. "But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in the hands of Washington politicians."
Calling for traditional Republican policies of tax cuts, less government involvement and reliance on free markets and individual effort, Jindal said: "The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens."
Jindal and most other Republicans gave a nod to polls showing strong public support for the president on the economy, saying they wanted to work with him on what all agreed was the country's most pressing issue.
But they accused Obama -- and, more pointedly, Democrats in Congress -- of choosing the wrong tactics by backing programs that they said would increase taxes and concentrate power in Washington instead of in private hands.
Emerging from the House chamber where Obama delivered the address, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was succinct: "Whether it is cap and trade, whether it is cradle-to-grave education, whether it is universal healthcare, the era of big government is here."
The Republicans' attempt to draw a contrast between the two major parties' visions for the country was complicated by Obama's repeated promises to eliminate waste, his assertion that he too favored smaller government, and his pledge to slice the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term.
The difference, Jindal and other Republicans said Tuesday, is that they wanted to spend even less than Democrats, except on defense. And, they said, they won't raise taxes to trim the deficit.
The Louisiana governor, considered a rising star who might run for president in 2012, recently said he may not accept a portion of money in the recent stimulus package set aside for Louisiana.
Jindal invoked his state's experience following Hurricane Katrina in support of Republican skepticism about government's ability to deal effectively with major national problems.
"Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts," he said.
Jindal, along with many Republicans in Congress, focused on the almost $1.5 trillion the government has recently committed for jump-starting the struggling economy and propping up ailing banks. The House will take up a mammoth spending bill today that was held over from the last session.
"I enjoyed about half of the speech," said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River). "I enjoyed the president's rhetoric. I enjoyed his call for responsibility. I enjoyed his statement that we have to be concerned about [our] children and grandchildren's debt. It's with the background of him applauding everything that was in the stimulus package and evidently everything that is going to be in the omnibus -- the two just don't add up."
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip and the face of a new conservative insurgency in Washington, said his party wanted to work with the president, but "there are some principles by which we're going to operate in proffering our ideas to the president and frankly to our congressional colleagues on the other side of the aisle."
Cantor's remarks illustrated the gamble Republicans have taken in opposing Obama's economic initiatives, including the stimulus bill. A New York Times poll released Tuesday said that almost three-quarters of Americans polled believed the president had been trying to work with Republicans, but only about 30% think Republicans were trying to work with Democrats.
That may be why many Republicans continued their campaign to drive a wedge between the White House and Congress by praising Obama but suggesting that his goals will be frustrated by Democratic leaders on the Hill.
"Nice speech," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), after Obama concluded his address. But he said that Obama's call for bipartisanship "fell on deaf ears" with the congressional Democratic leadership.
"It's going to take him weighing in early to bring everybody to the table, because so far the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate haven't got the memo on bipartisanship," Cornyn said.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), however, apparently had read that memo. He was giving Obama the benefit of the doubt. "I thought he was right on target on the issues -- energy, education, healthcare and housing. I just think the American public is just starved for details. When will we see results? Who's going to end up paying for all this?
"Given the fact that he's only been in office four weeks, I think the sooner he can fill in the blanks, the sooner we can get to work," Brady said. "Look, he deserves a fair chance to deliver on these issues. Where there's common ground, we ought to work together."